The Hate Crimes Bill: How Not to Remember Matthew Shepard

By Alexander Cockburn

July 2, 2009 5 min read

We've got the Hate Crimes Bill, aka the Matthew Shepard Act, aka the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, before Congress and far advanced on its repellent journey towards the statute book. On June 25, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill, which passed the House of Representatives by a 249-175 vote in April. If passed, President Obama is expected to sign it.

The Matthew Shepard Act is a ham-handed attempt to right injustice by establishing different legal treatment for some classes of crime victims. The proposed statute classifies as "hate crimes" attacks based on a victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. America is well on its way to making it illegal to say anything nasty about gays, Jews, blacks and women. "Hate speech," far short of any direct incitement to violence, is on the edge of being criminalized, with the First Amendment gone the way of the dodo.

Now, there already is a 1960s federal statute on the books proscribing hate crimes based on race, color, religion or ethnic origin, but prosecutors could invoke this law only if the victim was engaged in a "federally protected activity" like going to school or praying in church. No more, if the Senate agrees with the House. Suppose two fellows in a bar see a man come in and, later in the evening, beat him up. He turns out to be gay. Armed with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act if it becomes law, local prosecutors will have an incentive to pile hate crime charges on top of simple assault and thereby garner federal funding that will be available under the statute. The suspects then face an "enhancement" — several more years behind bars — for committing a hate crime. Or they are acquitted, and the federal prosecutor promptly moves in. Double jeopardy will metastasize from its already swollen presence in the justice system.

The gay lobby has gone into overdrive for just such a hate crime law ever since Matthew Shepard got beaten to death in 1998 by two roofers on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. It's actually somewhat unclear whether the roofers, one of whom was high on meth at the time, murdered Shepard because they specifically hated gays. Anyway, the murder has put them behind bars for the rest of their lives using tough existing laws. But, starting with Shepard's mother, Judy, the $100,000-plus head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, gay and "human rights" groups have been fundraising on Shepard's "gay martyrdom" ever since. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is a big hate-crime-law proponent, with the American Friends Service Committee the only group in it to have turned against such laws.

The problem with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is that it creates a thought crime and also categories of crime victims for disparate treatment. Goodbye to equality under the law. How will a prosecutor prove that a lesbian was murdered because of her sexual orientation rather than because she refused to give the mugger her purse? Given the way case law evolves and the manner in which prosecutors advance their political careers, crimes against some types of victims will incur greater penalties, with this injustice spurring resentment.

Advocates for the hate crimes bill insist that it deals only with crimes of violence and has nothing to do with limiting free speech or thought. But as Paul Craig Roberts has pointed out on our CounterPunch site (, "All laws are expansively interpreted. For example: The Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) (passed in 1970) was directed at drug lords. Nothing in the law says anything about divorce; yet it soon was applied in divorce cases."

Federal and state hate crime laws are unnecessary and dangerous. As always, the challenge is to apply existing laws in a manner that constitutes justice, no matter who the victim may be.

I'm glad to say the gay National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs "opposes legislation that calls for enhanced sentencing penalties for those convicted of hate crimes." Five gay groups have publicly criticized a bill currently before the New York State Legislature — the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act — that provides sentencing enhancements for hate crimes. Let others join them. It's disgusting to see liberals rushing into the sentence-toughening business.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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Derail the 'Hate Crimes' Bandwagon!

Derail the 'Hate Crimes' Bandwagon!

By Alexander Cockburn
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